Longfellow Goes Beat

I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.

When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”

Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.

Gaslight Poetry Cafe

Not quite as portrayed on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the legendary New York Gaslight coffee shop

 

So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?

Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**

The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.

“Snow-Flakes***”  he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”

The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****”  he says.

This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?

He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.

My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes”  and part of “A Psalm of Life,”  is available with the gadget below.

 

*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s America  over the band riffing.

**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel  this month with my wifeor from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard  by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.

***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!

****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.

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Coincident of Douglass and Hayden

Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,”  where one of the main characters had that family name.

Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.

That’s right, Sir Walter Scott, and that romanticized Scottish past, is the reason that the post-Civil War terror organization styled itself as Knights of a Klan.

There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.

I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.

To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.

Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.

For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.

Sun Ra and the MC5 by Gary Grimshaw

How did Afro-Futurist Jazz  appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair

 

For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?

I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.

Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.

And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.

“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.

California City Landscape

I beg your indulgence, but once more I feature Carl Sandburg’s words in today’s piece. Variety is a goal here, so perhaps I need to take a personal no-Sandburg pledge for a decent interval. And, honestly, I wasn’t seeking another Sandburg piece when I read through a yearly anthology of American poetry from 1922 last week, looking for fresh public domain material. Reading it I came upon the interesting poem that is the basis for today’s piece.

Carl Sandburg Times Up

The younger Carl Sandburg. Prophet?

 

Besides variety, I like to see connections, and “California City Landscape”  is rich in that. As a poem it may not be as sharp and condensed as Sandburg’s Imagist poems that I like to call attention to, but it does bring to the table Sandburg’s youthful journalism. “California City Landscape”  starts off like a feature story, and the story it tells is like ones written about gentrification in the 21st Century, even though it was written no later than 1922. The incumbent residents may be displaced. But like a poem, or a piece of carefully written prose, the reportage includes sentences which send a reader or listener off into entire dimensions of reality outside its moment in “the peace of the morning sun as it happened.” It was those things that arrested my attention as I read this in the midst of this old annual anthology.

It starts out with this anecdote about a second generation Irish-American goat farmer, connecting as it does to one of second-generation immigrant Sandburg’s great themes: American immigration. But how carefully barbed is the sentence Sandburg uses to sum up the changes this man has seen in California by 1922. He arrived in a covered wagon, and “shot grouse, buffalo, Indians, in a single year.”

If we were Tweeting: “OMG! He went there!”

But there it is in a sentence. An Irish-American, coming from a nation that is widely despised, colonially oppressed, and mired in poverty and starvation, travels in a generation across and ocean and a broad continent, and in the process shoots (and presumably kills) indigenous Americans, an act linked as if it was like hunting for food.

I’ll admit, at first moment I thought it offensive, but I’ve read enough Sandburg to know his toughmindedness, his instinct to not sugar-coat. That Sandburg wouldn’t have included this detail as a thoughtless, bloodless, “Oh, those good ol’ days, when men knew how to handle a rifle” comment.

His next anecdote: two Japanese families, truck gardening for the growing city of Los Angeles. And once again, the undertone: immigrants whose race and culture is understood barely enough to be widely disapproved of in their new country. We don’t need to credit Sandburg with the gift of prophecy, but historically we may know what will happen in 20 years: the Japanese Americans on the West Coast will be taken from their homes by legal fiat and detained in makeshift rural camps.

So, a 95-year-old poem about a problem we might write about today (if our poetry would be politically engaged and socially observant): gentrification. And in talking about it, Sandburg brings in racism, and immigration from those, ah, um—what’s the Presidential term—oh, yes, less desirable countries.

And then the third anecdote: the McMansion of the Hollywood director, with the “whore-house interiors.” Here I’m not completely sure about Sandburg’s prophetic dimension. The epithet of whore-house décor remained even into my time in the second half of the 20th Century as a charge on nouveau riche ostentation, a term used without a direct linkage to sexual oppression.

That Sandburg the poet goes on to add “ransacked clothes,” an odd adjective choice that he could have intended as a knock against Hollywood costumers knocking off “real” European couture—but that sounds more snobbish than Sandburg could ever be—and he next adds the “In the combats of ‘male against female” line. From the era we know the director is male, and Sandburg associates this anecdote specifically with a struggle of “male against female.”

Maybe I’m missing an obvious alternative, but is Sandburg predicting a 95 year #timesup statement?

Finally, I love the last line, echoing a common Sandburg trope about modernity and timelessness: “How long it might last, how young it might be.”



And now for something completely different: Sandburg in his 80s. “Ernest Hemmingway?”

 

Musically, I’ve been a little short of time. I wanted to do something reminiscent of the mid-20th Century word-jazz bag, but the typical beat poet reading to jazz backing in a small club used piano, and my piano skills are entirely rudimentary. Frequent Parlando Project keyboardist Dave Moore is currently fighting a right hand issue, so I couldn’t go that route, so I used by love of jazz guitarist Jim Hall and my audacious tendency to fake styles beyond my abilities to create this jazz trio with drums, bass, and electric guitar for my reading of Sandburg’s “California City Landscape.” Hear it using the player below.

 

He was so singularly great, they called him THE Lonious Monk!

So, I ride off to breakfast this morning, and when I open the paper I see this advertisement for a tribute show planned for this fall:

100 Years of Lonious Monk

I applaud the artists, organizers, and promoters of this tribute to another great American artist. After all, I do the same kind of thing here:  asking you to pay notice to other artists—but sometimes there’s no substitute for the genuine article!

Thelonious Monk's rules as transcribed by Steve Lacy

notes on Thelonious Monk’s advice written down by Steve Lacy.

Lot’s of good advice on those two notebook sheets for musicians and writers.

Dream Big

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.

Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.

Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion”  I returned to the same theater complex to see Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”)  that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.

And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”

The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest hand). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.

Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if  he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time

 

I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!”  June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!”  doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.

Kiran Leonard

Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful

Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.

To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!”  use the player below.